Those headland happy hikers go to the light
Here's my advice for those thinking of doing some autumnal walking – be headland happy, peninsula potty, cape crazy. Follow me and become a foreland fanatic.
This region's many south-pointing headlands are among the great hiking highlights of this great big ocean-pointing peninsula, and before the first thoughts of winter set in I've been determined to get a last blast of the intense bright light that comes bouncing off the sea.
I've written before in this newspaper about the bright-light-treatment offered by the handsome protuberances of England's underbelly. The great bastions of land stretch out into a cauldron of light and the stuff comes bouncing up at you from three magnificent, glaring, sides.
Lizard, Dodman, Rame and Prawle – the names send happy shivers down my spine. Start Point is no exception in this illuminated roll of honour. Moreover, like all promontories, it makes for ideal walking territory although in places you might need a good head for heights.
Oddly enough, given all this joy and light, our route begins at a place that is melancholic and forlorn. Indeed, the lost village of Hallsands is probably one of the Westcountry's saddest sights – if you consider it was once a merry, thriving fishing community.
But it was doomed. You realise this as soon as you park down by the pleasant little beach. It's a place that's gone to sea – most it has disappeared over the cliff-edge.
Readers of this newspaper will probably be aware of the story of Hallsands. Basically, the community was condemned thanks to the actions of man – indeed, the Royal Navy may as well have turned up with a couple of destroyers, shelled the place and had done with it. It was a gigantic dredging operation to supply gravel for the development of the Naval Dockyard at Devonport, that probably caused the 37 houses in the village to slip into the sea. Half-a-million tons of the stuff was taken from an area called Skerries Bank just offshore.
Consequently, the beach level dropped four metres in a few years leading up to 1904 – and the natural sea-defences were gone. After a series of storms, the village went the same way as its beach. The worst incident occurred in January 1917 when 24 of the remaining houses were destroyed.
One or two intact cottages still cling to the narrow ledge and beyond them are the remains of a few others. But the path down to the houses is barred and bolted and you have to peer from a viewing platform where an interpretation board tells you about the disaster. Copies of old sepia photos show a bustling place (women in aprons, boys with barrels, washing lines, smoking chimneys) although you can see how the sea wall is already falling asunder. One picture shows a family evacuating a cottage, carrying their bits of furniture amidst the rubble of what was once a main street.
One little known fact about this lost community is that they used to keep Newfoundland dogs here and the creatures were specially trained to swim out beyond the breakers so that they could return holding the end of a boat's rope in their teeth.
From the lost village the coast path begins its gentle ascent along a curving, bracken covered hillside, towards Start Point. The path is a delight. Which ever way you look there are stunning views. Over your shoulder, Devon's coast marches north past Beesands and the great blonde thread of Slapton Sands to Dartmouth and the hills of Brixham beyond before turning east to head towards Dorset. To the south, Start Point stabs the channel like the blade of a serrated dagger.
It's sometimes claimed that Start was given its name by mariners who felt they hadn't really begun the big blue-water part of their oceanic voyages until they'd past the rugged finger of rock that divides comparatively genteel Lyme Bay with the wilder Western Approaches.
It is more likely that the name was adapted from the early Anglo Saxon "steort", meaning tail. Seen from the air, Start Point is certainly tail-like – a near mile-long ridge of highly metamorphosed schist rock that sticks a jagged thumb east in a final and dramatic curtailment of Lyme Bay.
On our walk we reach a stone stile at the top of the ridge and this introduces us to the Trinity House lane that hugs vertiginous slope until it terminates at the lighthouse.
Start Point used to be a killing ground for ships. The list of wrecks is frightening – in March 1891 no fewer than six vessels came to grief in the vicinity in just 30 days. Even a moderately breezy day can provide visitors with a sense of sombre foreboding – at certain states of the tide the wind and currents do battle around the point with alarming effect. You can imagine the entire salty contents of Lyme Bay being forced to rush past this tip with the result that a succession of fearsome looking "over-falls" line up like the ones you see boiling in a big mountain river in full spate.
I was once given a tour of the lighthouse by Roger Barrett who wrote a book about the place. It was built in 1836 and Roger told me: "It's a direction sign – both a warning sign to warn of the dangers of the rocks and the Skerries sand bank, and also a direction sign, with the light flashing three times every ten seconds. Sailors can see the beam from 25 nautical miles.
"It used to be a major landfall for mariners who used to chart their course to make a landfall at Start Point," he added. "Then, when they'd seen it, they'd know they were safely in home waters and go on up the Channel keeping the lighthouses on the left hand side."
Roger's book is a fascinating account of this most lonesome and wild place and has chapter headings like "Saints and Sinners" – which contains a note about the hapless Henry Muge who was hanged in chains out on the end of the point as a dire warning to others who might be tempted to take up piracy.
I climbed the serrated ridge from the lighthouse and made my way inland recalling how the usual wreckers and smugglers stories abound around this rocky corner of Devon. Roger's book tells a story of one ship being lured on to the rocks where the wretched crew clung for their lives and yelled for help. A rope was thrown down from the locals above – but it was way too short.
"More rope!" the sailors cried, to no avail. As Roger points out – dead men don't tell tales. For years afterwards Great Mattiscombe Sand, as it's now known, was rather matter-of-factly called More Rope Bay.
The path I was following now weaves its aerial way to reach Great Mattiscombe Sand – where a footpath headed inland up a valley to reach the stone stile we climbed earlier. We climb this path so, having reached the stile, it's a case of retracing our footsteps down to Hallsands to complete what is a lasso-shaped hike.
You could though, continue to Lannacombe Beach, which is a tremendous idea. From there you'd make your way via inland lanes back to Hallsands
Whichever route you take, let me warn you: a day spent bathed in Start Point's curative light will cause you to become a peninsula potty, cape crazy, foreland fanatic like me.